Notre Dame football: ND’s Watt faces tough challenge

South Bend Tribune

PITTSBURGH - Tough time to have a right knee that doesn't work the way it had always worked before.

Confidence is a big part of Chris Watt's game.

Notre Dame's left guard, who missed last week's game against Navy with a knee injury, knows all about the challenge he will face Saturday night at Pitt. Aaron Donald will be lined up opposite Watt most of the night.

Battling Donald, a 6-foot, 285-pound bundle of energy regarded as one of the best defensive tackles in college football, takes two healthy knees and all the confidence a guy can muster.

"Aaron Donald has been a one-man wrecking crew, especially last week against Georgia Tech (11 tackles, 6 tackles for loss), against the option, he was a force," said Irish head coach Brian Kelly. "We know about him from last year (7 tackles, 1 tackle for loss in Notre Dame's triple-overtime win). "Big, physical defensive lineman, and he will be somebody that we will have to game plan and find a way to slow down. He's in the backfield, very active. I think for him, you know, you have a powerful guy, but he's also extremely quick at the point of attack.

"He uses a lot of different techniques to get into the backfield, and we're going to have to... we were just talking about things that we will have to do to mitigate some of the things that he does."

All indications are Watt will be ready for the test, despite having a right knee that's not quite healed. He sustained a PCL tear in the Air Force game. The medical opinion is that injury doesn't require surgery. In time, the ligament will heal on its own. In the meantime, Watt has to overcome a feeling of instability in his knee.

Watt said during pre-game drills last Saturday, he didn't feel he could do his job to the best of his ability, so he deferred to Conor Hanratty. This week, with Donald looming, the 6-foot-3, 321-pound fifth-year guard made sure he was prepared.

"I've made a few subtle adjustments in terms of the steps I'm taking," said Watt. "I've been taking all the reps in practice this week. It's been great."

Watt's presence along the Irish offensive line will be critical if Notre Dame plans to build on the offensive success it enjoyed against Navy. Freshman Tarean Folston ran 18 times for 140 yards, giving a glimpse of the power and speed in the running game that has been lacking in consistency this season.

Navy's undersized defense may have been vulnerable to that sort of performance. It's time to prove it against a defense with size and a stud guy down low. Pitt yields 164 rushing yards a game and 366 yards of total offense.

No matter how it's sized up, the way to deal with the Panther defense is to find a way to neutralize Donald.

"The good thing about the way that (Donald) plays is that he's able to affect the play whether it's going to him or away from him," Pitt head coach Paul Chryst said about his senior. "That's what stood out to me with his production the last couple weeks. He's a special player. I love the way he's approaching it. We need him to continue to be even more special."

"Last year, we had like 101 plays on offense and (Donald) was going hard on just about every one," said Watt. "He's possibly the smartest defensive line guy we'll play this year. He does a really good job of reading o-linemen; real good job of reading formations; knowing what offense we're running.

"We're going to have to be careful this week not to give anything away in our stances.

"He does a good job using an o-lineman's weight against him. He does a really good job in the run game, either penetrating, or, if you're going really hard, he'll kinda just 'skank' through there.

"(Donald's) a good player. He's got really long arms and he uses them to his advantage.

"When you think he's not going to be going hard, that's when he's going to come up and make a play.

"In my (redshirt junior) year, he was a backup (1 tackle vs. the Irish). I thought he was one of the best players, but he was a backup.

"We saw a lot of him last year. Both of the guards (Watt and Steve Elmer, along with center Nick Martin) will see plenty of (Donald on Saturday night)."

That's where the confidence part comes in.

Through five years in the trenches at Notre Dame, Watt has seen just about everything. He's been there through the good and bad. He's battled some of the best in the business — in practice and in games — and has lived to talk about it.

Now's the time to put that wisdom to work — dealing with a great defensive tackle on a knee that's not exactly right.

"I'm continuing to build confidence (in the knee) by going out there (on the practice field) every day this week; then, through preparation and film," Watt said. "I'm trying to use my experience to my advantage."

He'll need every lesson he ever learned.

And trust that it will be enough.

Notre Dame guard Chris Watt (66) will have his work cut out when he lines up against Pitt's Aaron Donald Saturday night. AP Photo/MICHAEL CONROY